What is a Landscape Architect?

Since I graduated from the landscape architecture program at my alma mater in 2011, I have been searching for a full time job in anything at all. Yes, I am still on the search. I have been learning a lot along the way while attending a job club every other week through my alma mater. While I have been learning about networking, resume building, and money management, I have also been learning how people react when I talk about my background. I also have a degree in music.

I usually get, ‘well that’s an interesting combination! Are you going to play music in your garden?” or “You could create outdoor theaters!”, which is only a scant more applicable. (Actually, I wanted to go to graduate school to study acoustic ecology. While I got into two schools, that was the year everyone who heard my name took on drastic budget cuts and I could not afford $30K/year+) Other times I get recommendations to go to the local nurseries where I could get a job watering plants and mowing lawns. It’s is like no one hears the word ‘architect’ in landscape architect, or they reference it to landscape design.

When I get to thinking about it, sometimes I wonder if I should even say that I have a degree in landscape architecture, as it seems no one knows what it is or it’s completely misconstrued as to what it is, therefore immediately thought of as unqualified for position a, b, c. Really, it’s not their fault that they do not know.

Myth 1: We Know Nothing About Plants

What is more frustrating is how I get tossed around as to how I’ve been educated. A few weeks ago, I did go to a high end reputable nursery for a position they were hiring for. Everything they wanted, retail, plant knowledge, design, floral…I knew about and had experience. However, when the owner, who was a horticulturist and semi-designer interrogated interviewed me, he asked questions like if I knew what ‘digitalis australis’ was. I did not, but I could say that it must have originated from Australia. He continued to beat me up about my knowledge in plants. I was probably the most plant oriented person in my program and had the most background in working with plants. However, this horticulturist still had made up his mind that I knew nothing about plants as a landscape architect, no matter how many plant classes I told him I had taken and how much I had studied on my own or did in my past employment. I didn’t get the job. It only paid $9 an hour anyway.

Myth 2: All We Know Are Plants and Lawns

On the opposite end, designers of all kinds don’t think I know anything about design or graphic design. They think I know a lot about plants, how to take care of all of them, which fertilizers the lawn needs, and maybe the slightly more knowledgeable think I know how to orient the best of the best in front of someone’s house. While that is good and true, only some landscape architects do that for a living, and they usually are just landscape designers and probably really only a self trained horticulturist who decided to learn a little design. While I can design someone’s garden and would actually enjoy doing that for someone, a landscape architect is more than that.

So what is a landscape architect?

Here are a few projects we designed in school that were realistic.

In my first year in design studio, we had one project where we designed a backyard. We outlined planting beds and put in trees, but that was all we did with plants. It was mostly designing where to put features we thought were pertinent like pathways, gazebo, firepit, fountains.

In second year of design studio, we visited some vineyards and designed our own vineyard. We did have to consider the ecology of grapevines. We designed an urban park on a site located downtown, and we analyzed a transverse section of the rural urban fringe in our city.

In third year of studio, we each designed a tiny home, did an extensive walkability audit of our city, designed a solution to the American lawn, designed an urban transit center, planned a new transportation system in a city, and designed a new passive park.

In fourth year of studio we had two semester long projects. In the first, we designed a trail head for the existing Legacy Trail in our city, and completed a series of 10 documents (grading & drainage, layout dimensions, electrical & lighting, planting plan, etc.) all drawn in AutoCAD. The 2nd semester long project was a hands on service learning studio working with a nearby community in designing a new comprehensive county wide revitalization masterplan. The program I graduated from was also a 5 year program to complete only an undergraduate degree.

Here are some snipits of various projects in my portfolio:


LA2Bicycle Transit Hub

LA3Urban Food Crisis

LA4Passive Park in Georgia

LA5Trail Head Drainage Plan

LA6Construction Materials Dimension Drawing

LA7Real life photo imaging design in Photoshop

LA8Design concept for mixed use center

LA9Cross Section of Lexington

LA10Rudimentary Sketchup Model of office complex

How We’re Trained

A landscape architect can do an array of things. We learn design principals just like an architect would. We also learn graphic design and how to use design software. We learn about plants, soils, forestry, ecology, and other science oriented things. There are classes on landscape architecture history, creative thinking, theory, and engineering. We also learn about communities, social interaction, government laws and policies, socio-economics, planning issues, and how to preserve and increase a sense of community through design. Some people may go on to get their masters in urban planning or ecology which helps define where they want to go with landscape architecture. Some may even open their own landscape design company. Some may forgo the outdoors all together and just become a graphic designer, or any other type of designer.

The Endangered Landscape Architect

A landscape architect is pretty versatile in their knowledge. We really have to know a little about everything. However, to be called a landscape architect, one must work under a licensed landscape architect for 2 years, pass an exam, and attended classes to gain continuing education points every year. Just like a lawyer, CPA, cosmetologist, or architect. This is one reason we are loosing landscape architects. Since the job crunch, many graduates are having to go into other fields to find work, since there is only a small amount of practicing landscape architects hiring. There is simply too much competition, even at the small percentage of landscape architecture students nationwide. Many jobs and projects are also located overseas. America isn’t keeping up with advances in planning issues and sustainable design. Businesses should be soaking up all the landscape architects they can. Many are also giving up their title because it is expensive to maintain a practicing license and many are not able to keep up with it due to layoffs.

If you want to know what variety of boxwood to plant by your roses, you can most easily find out from your horticulturist or landscape designer. But we depend specifically on landscape architects for much larger issues. We plan such places as neighborhoods so they do not flood, college campuses and shopping centers so they move fluidly and don’t ruin the landscape, transportation networks through cities and states, urban parks and plazas, to revitalize the water’s ecology in a town, and to plan growth within a city.

Projects that needed a landscape architect:

Gas Works Park in Seattle

High Line of New York City

Paley Park in NYC

Daylighting Streams

Celebration, Florida

Distillery District, Kentucky


6 thoughts on “What is a Landscape Architect?

  1. That word landscape really trips people up, I think. Very few people really understand the complexity of how we shape (or fail to shape) our environments. Landscape architects and urban planners have some of the biggest challenges to confront, in my opinion. I hope communities have enough sense to appreciate what smart people like you do before it is too late.

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